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Jew vs. ‘jew:’ Google’s offensive definition causes a (brief) online stir

The search engine defaulted to showing a derogatory use of ‘jew’ as a verb

We often talk about the fact that there are large swaths of the U.S., and of the world, where people have never encountered a Jew. And, it turns out, if they were curious to learn more about Jews, and Googled “Jew,” the top result would be a dictionary excerpt defining the term — lowercase — as an offensive verb meaning “to bargain with someone in a miserly or petty way.” You had to click a button to see more definitions before finding an entry about the ethnicity or religion.

On Twitter on Tuesday, Jews tweeted a screenshot of the definition in outrage; as of early afternoon on Tuesday, Google appears to have remedied the issue. The search now brings up a dictionary excerpt defining “Jew” — uppercase — as “a member of the people and cultural community whose traditional religion is Judaism and who trace their origins through the ancient Hebrew people of Israel to Abraham.

Google often displays what are known as “snippets,” or definitions and excerpts from other sites that sit at the top of a list of search results, without requiring the user to click through to read the original article or page from which they are excerpted. This is particularly common with definitions, which are usually sourced from Oxford Languages, a dictionary company.

There is a disclaimer that accompanies the dictionary snippets, which notes that “Google doesn’t create, write, or modify definitions. Dictionary results don’t reflect the opinions of Google.” The disclaimer section says that Google will include offensive words — always labeled as such — to ensure that the definition is comprehensive. But it says that the search engine will “only display an offensive definition by default when it’s the main meaning of the term.” 

The verb usage of Jew is certainly not the objective meaning. So why was the offensive verb the top result instead of, you know, the religion and ethnicity that’s been around for thousands of years? In a roundabout way, it’s the ancient people — or stereotypes about them, to be specific — that generated the derogatory verb usage in the first place, so that certainly supersedes the offensive usage as a main meaning.

A brainstorm with colleagues brought up a few theories, but none of them quite held up. Is Google not case-sensitive, meaning it defaults to searching for jew in its lowercase usage? Google Trends, a tool that analyzes the popularity of top search queries, does not differentiate between a search for the popularity of “Jew” v. “jew,” confirming that the search engine cannot tell the difference between cases. But if that were why the offensive verb were popping up, results should always favor the lowercase usage.

Yet searching “turkey” brought up the nation, not the Thanksgiving bird. Searching for “china,” similarly, brings up the country, not the material your grandmother’s tea set is made of. 

Perhaps Google puts up the most frequently used or searched-for definition? It’s impossible to confirm which usage is more common, thanks to Google Trends’ lack of case-sensitivity. But from my many years online, in a wide variety of arenas, it seems unlikely that Jew is used more frequently as a verb than as a proper noun. Even antisemitic white supremacists and conspiracy theorists tend to talk — rather nonstop, actually — about the Jews in the word’s proper noun usage. 

Plus, a search for “august” brought up the adjective instead of the month, despite the fact that the month is almost certainly used more frequently. So that puts to bed the idea that the search engine defaults to prioritizing a word’s most frequently used form.

Another theory: it could be the algorithmic tailoring. Users often get different search results on Google, depending on what the search engine’s algorithm thinks you’re likely to want to see. Perhaps you recently were researching synonyms for “big” so a search for “titanic” brought up the adjective, and not the boat. (For me, it pulls up the cast of the movie; movie casts are a frequent search of mine.)

The algorithmic tailoring seems like an unlikely culprit for the Google result for “Jew,” however, given that Jews were the ones raising the alarm about the offensive result — and the fact that many different people all got the same result. 

Google’s algorithm is complex, and uses large sets of data to determine how to rank results and what to show users, including concepts such as “relevance” and “freshness,” according to a page explaining its ranking processes. Perhaps a page or definition using “jew” as an offensive verb was going viral, and that elevated Google’s algorithmic “freshness” assessment — though Google’s public information on ranking specifically says that freshness is more important to news-based queries than when determining which dictionary definitions to show.

As of publication, the search engine had not replied to a request for comment. The offensive verb definition is currently not listed in the dictionary results at all, even when you scroll down. Honestly, though, that seems wrong too.

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